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Trojans in Anglo-Saxon England:Precedent without Descent

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Publication details

JournalReview of English Studies
DateE-pub ahead of print - 27 Jul 2012
DatePublished (current) - Feb 2013
Issue number263
Number of pages21
Pages (from-to)1-20
Early online date27/07/12
Original languageEnglish


Unlike many European ruling houses, the Anglo-Saxon royal dynasties did not claim Trojan origins; rather they traced their descent back to euhemerized pagan Germanic gods. Their eschewal of the Trojan ancestors shared by continental and insular neighbours was not the consequence of ignorance. On the contrary, the Anglo-Saxons, who settled within the limits of the Empire after the withdrawal of Rome from Britain, constructed a self-consciously distinctive position. This article examines evidence for the knowledge of the story of Troy from the time of Alfred the Great to the Conquest to argue that the lay aristocracy of Anglo-Saxon England knew well the story of the foundation of Rome from the ruins of Troy. They used it as a precedent for events in Anglo-Saxon history from the slaughter of pagans on the Isle of Wight in the seventh century to the foundation of the short-lived Anglo-Scandinavian dynasty and the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. A simultaneous fascination with but rejection of descent from Troy enabled them to articulate both its essential fictionality, labelling it as ‘fable’ and ‘false story’, and the value of the fictional in terms which anticipate twelfth-century theorizing. The Anglo-Saxons used this sophisticated understanding of the Trojan origin legend as framework to express both their place within, and yet their apartness from, Europe.

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